Browsing: CD and Book Reviews

**/*** Two recordings arrive, both claiming to be Beethoven world premieres. At issue is a piano concerto the great man wrote in 1784 at the age of 13 or 14 and, after copious revisions, apparently forgot about. The autograph manuscript sits in the Berlin State Library and two pianists have had recourse to it, with a quick trip to the photocopier. First things first: is the concerto a significant work? Not in the sense that it reveals much we did not already know about Beethoven, music or humanity. The opening theme does not grip the ear and the development is…

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****** (6 stars out of 5) Most records are disposable. A few are memorable, a small handful are treasurable and every now and then now one comes along that is indelible. This box is something else. I think this is the first time I have ever described a record set as indispensable. The five CDs collect all the Russian state recordings of Dmitri Shostakovich playing his own music. The composer was a terrific pianist and the interpretations can be regarded as authoritative – a reference point for all future performances. But the recordings are imbued by place and time –…

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The near-symbiotic relationship between Mendelssohn and his older sister, examined in my forthcoming book Genius and Anxiety, was so central to both musicians’ lives that Felix was felled by a stroke on hearing of Fanny’s death and died before the year was out. Fanny, the first to evince musical talent, was silenced by their father as she neared puberty in order not to deflect attention from her genius kid brother. In her 30s she found a publisher and began – to Felix’s chagrin – to produce chamber music. His anger abated on finding that the music was of high quality.…

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Skye Consort & Emma Björling Leaf Music, LM225 4/5 Sentez l’air frais du nord s’insinuer dans vos oreilles avec cette rencontre remarquable entre la chanteuse suédoise Emma Björling et l’ensemble Skye Consort formé de Seán Dagher (bouzouki, banjo, voix), Alex Kehler (nyckelharpa, violon, voix) et Amanda Keesmaat (violoncelle, voix). Né grâce à la complicité des artistes et au retard fortuit de l’avion d’Emma lors d’un retour de concert au Québec, l’album Skye Consort & Emma Björling compile des airs traditionnels scandinaves, anglo-saxons et acadiens ponctués de compositions instrumentales. L’album est bien équilibré dans le choix des pièces; le groove fleuri…

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Sometimes the best records get made with no foresight whatsoever. As part of his label switch from Sony Classical it had been planned that Murray Perahia would record the five concertos for the Beethoven year, live in Berlin where he had concerts scheduled with the visiting Academy of St Martin in the Fields. Then Perahia suffered a recurrent hand injury and had to be replaced by the Canadian Jan Lisiecki. The DG team were already booked for the recording so they went ahead, And, what do you know, the results were better than expected. Much better. Lisiecki, 24, has been…

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If I listen one more time to Andrey Gugnin playing DSCH I shall probably be locked up for my own safety, at least until after Brexit. But it’s going to happen. Like Brexit, I can’t stop it. The music on this compelling album comes from recesses of the composer’s soul, written at times when he was more troubled by personal issues than political. Aged 21, his percussive first piano sonata of 1927 runs alongside his second symphony and has much in common with Bartok’s sonata of 1926, though also with Alban Berg’s. The second sonata, written in the middle of…

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Most musicians go through life trying to avoid trouble, especially of the political kind. Gabriela Montero is an exception. Venezuelan by birth and an exile from childhood, she made her name as a flamboyant soloist in 20th century piano concertos. As encores she invented her own riffs on themes requested by the audience. Over time, these became full-length compositions. Unable to ignore the Government-impelled disintegration of her home country, she infused many of her musical thoughts with a political message of range and hope. The main item in this release is a piano concerto by Montero fusing Latin American tropes…

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At the end of the Second World War, Hollywood’s most influential composer turned his attention to recovering his lost prestige in the concert hall. Erich Wolfgang Korngold had taken the precaution of retaining copyright in his movie scores so that he could reuse their themes in symphonic works. He set to work on a violin concerto for Jascha Heifetz and an uncommissioned symphony in F, anticipating no shortage of interest from orchestras in search of popular music. His hopes were soon dashed. The concerto was derided by New York critics when it reached Carnegie Hall and the symphony, after a…

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The anniversary year of Hans Pfitzner (1869-1949) is marked by the re-emergence of a piano concerto that he wrote at the height of his fame. Pfitzner, acclaimed for his 1917 opera Palestrina, delivered the concerto in 1923, with Walter Gieseking as soloist. If Palestrina echoes Wagner’s Meistersinger, the concerto nods repeatedly in the direction of Brahms’s B-flat – and the nodding is done mostly by the listener. Pfitzner’s fallen reputation is sometimes ascribed to his gruesome flirtation with the Nazis but this concerto suggests something more organically at fault. Each of four movements is introduced by a promising idea, which…

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In the painstaking task of reading page proofs for my next book, I needed something on in the background that would keep my rhythm going without distracting me with an excess of invention. Hindemith, who else? The German composer, damned by the Nazis as a dangerous modernist, was never other than a cerebral conservative with an ear for correct form. Exiled to Istanbul, then to Yale, he reduced students to tears with rigorous lessons in theory and any number of ruthless technical exercises designed to make them better human beings. The 1943 Ludus Tonalis set for solo piano, premiered by…

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